Peter Corrigan: Cities of Hope

An exhibition at RMIT Gallery celebrates the life and work of colourful Melbourne architect and theatre designer, Peter Corrigan.

Anyone who has ventured to the colourful northern stretch of Melbourne’s Swanston Street will be familiar with the work of seminal Melbourne architect, set and costume designer Peter Corrigan.

Peter Corrigan in his study.

Peter Corrigan in his study.

Image: Anthony Geernaert

After spending several years studying in RMIT University’s iconic Building 8, designed by Corrigan with Maggie Edmond (together, Edmond and Corrigan), I can say I’ve had quite a lot of time to ponder their style and attitude towards architecture. It is both brave and exuberant, teeming with explicit references and intriguing narratives. Yet sometimes, the abundance of ideas results in confusion rather than clarity.

Rooted firmly in the Postmodernist movement, the work often indulges in brash colours and wacky formal gestures at the expense of more practical concerns, such as accessibility, legibility and user experience. These things aside, Corrigan’s work has hugely influenced the local architectural discourse, and an exhibition currently at the RMIT Gallery entitled Peter Corrigan: Cities of Hope, allows a rare glimpse into the mind of this architect.

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Curated by Vanessa Gerrans, the exhibition celebrates his life, library, and vast personal art collection, and is supplemented by a generous program of events. Inside the main gallery space, occupying the centre of the room, a grid of blue plinths quietly displays a selection of architectural models and books, but it is on the surrounding walls where you first see (and hear) the kookiness and drama you would expect of Corrigan.

Artworks by Roger Kemp, Philip Hunter and Rick Amor are hung on the walls, including a number of portraits of Corrigan himself. On a stage to the right, a bizarre fish-headed man is quietly perched, wearing one of Corrigan’s fabulous costumes. Unfortunately this display, and a number of notable artworks including Howard Arkley’s Family Home, are let down by the wall treatments. The kitsch green sponge-painting appears to be an attempt to apply some of Corrigan’s theatre design expression to the gallery, but it doesn’t really work.

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In contrast, the floor-to-ceiling display of original drawings by Edmond & Corrigan spanning the entire back wall is impressive, and easily the highlight for me. The atmospheres created by these carefully crafted drawings are stunning, and the precision of line and detail no less convincing than any digital render.

Of particular interest were the drawings of Edmond & Corrigan’s proposal for the State Library and Museum of Victoria competition (1986), on the site where QV now stands. The drawings envision a sunken public plaza that complements the architecture of the State Library, rather than overshadowing it – a far cry from the current situation. Their submission for the Australian Parliament competition is also on the wall. Looking more like a suburban TAFE than the national seat of power, I’m relieved this one never left the drawing board.

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The second gallery room houses Corrigan’s theatre costume and set designs, including bespoke staging created for a play based on Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The drama here is palpable: walls are painted lilac, and at either end of the room play videos of operas by Giuseppe Verdi (with Corrigan’s sets and costumes), Falstaff, from a 2013 production at Austria’s Graz Opera, and Nabucco, performed in 1995 at the Sydney Opera House.

Although the long room does well to achieve an immersive experience, what is most disappointing about the exhibition is that it doesn’t meaningfully engage with the spatial opportunities of the gallery – something one may expect from an exhibition about an innovative architect and set-designer. Beyond this, whether you are a fan of Corrigan’s unique style or not, Cities of Hope provides a compelling insight into the diversity of inspiration that drives creative designers.

Peter Corrigan received the 2003 Gold Medal and the 2013 Neville Quarry Architectural Education Prize from the Australian Institute of Architects.

Peter Corrigan: Cities of Hope
12 Apr to 8 Jun 2013
RMIT Gallery
344 Swanston Street

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